Being a successful business leader isn’t about giving inspirational speeches, making the decisions and saving the day. It’s also not about success, being wealthy, receiving recognition or calling the shots. So what is it about? Our next guest, J. Scott, author of It’s Never Just Business, is here to tell us exactly that.
J. Scott: If I read, I’m looking for an answer. My company, we help organizations deliver large transformational projects and so, we have a tendency to boil things down to the simple. If you keep it simple, people can relate to it, and we ultimately communicate to lead.
I haven’t had any mentors on my journey. I wasn’t born with super successful parents that really taught me anything. I wasn’t born into a good neighborhood, I wasn’t born into wealth. You know, I don’t even know what I was thinking when I decided to start a business.
It was super impulsive, and I pretty much learned everything the hard way.
I feel like I made every possible mistake that you could make and I survived. I think it has a lot to do with my willingness to fail, learn the lesson. I’m definitely that guy that shares about how he’s messing things up all the time, right?
My friends are always like, “You sound like a train wreck.” If something outside your life was so good—and it’s not that I’m complaining, I’m just sharing, hey, “this happened, this is what I learned from it.” I thought, it would be good, I could do some good not just for my team members because you know, within my organization, I’m cultivating leaders, every single person that comes to the door. My mission is to help connect them with leadership to infect them almost with a desire to be leaders.
Because leadership isn’t a position, it’s a choice. I thought it would be good to put down on paper, my journey. I’ve read a lot of, let’s just call it leadership mumbo jumbo. I’ve been to a lot of forums where I’ve heard great inspirational speakers. I leave inspired and then I go home and I’m like, “All right, how do I put that into practice?”
I thought that not only could I help create some velocity within my own organization, around developing leadership skills by putting it on paper, so we could use it as sort of internal curriculum, but just that my journey was full of pain and bliss just like the lyrics from the song that I just read.
When they say that it’s 50% pain, I could completely relate to it. I don’t feel like I could do things any other way. I mean, it would be easier to be a manager, a boss, than it is to be a leader.
Leaders help people reach for their potential, so writing the book was selfish. To help grow skills within my organization. Maybe arrogantly I thought that I could help others get there quicker, not make the same mistakes. Maybe resonate and connect with some of these things from a positive place, rather than the pain that I had to go through to develop them.
I was not predisposed to be a good leader. I was actually taught by the culture that I was born into to be a boss.
What Sets Leadership Apart
Rae Williams: I’d love for you to talk a little bit about leadership versus authority.
J. Scott: Obviously within organizations, there’s managers and there are executives. There is some authority that comes along with those positions. Obviously, managers can fire people and therefore they can exert influence through authority to have people guessing done. The challenge there is when managers are telling people what to do and those people are doing them simply because those managers and executives have authority over them.
Those people that are doing these things are not thinking, they’re basically putting in the bare minimum whereas leaders, helps people self-actuate a roadmap to a shared goal. Instead of me being the boss of the manager and telling people what to do.
I instead am helping people sort of see where we’re going and helping them develop a solution. People often distrust what others say or tell them to do, but they almost always trust what they think they should do. As a leader.
When I help somebody cultivate their own steps to accomplishing something, there’s a much higher degree of likelihood that they’re going to be connected to their steps, that they’re going to be committed to those steps and, more importantly, that they understand the outcome that they’re looking to achieve through the development of the steps.
The other thing too is, there’s choice when you’re working with somebody to help them develop their own roadmap. Like, they’re choosing to come up with the solution, they’re choosing to go on the journey—they’re choosing to get there. Whereas if somebody’s doing something simply because they feel that they’ve been told to do something, you take away choice and they’re going to – they’re basically going to approach it completely differently.
I’m sure that you’ve worked in an environment where you worked for somebody and that person made you feel like you’re there to be productive, so they could succeed. There’s a high degree of likelihood that if I asked you how you felt about that person, you’d say, “not great.”
When I teach leadership, I ask this question quite a bit and I get people using words like “I felt anger, I felt distrust, I felt disdain.”
I’d ask them you know, were you putting in extra time, would you pull a hail Mary for that person? Did you want to help that person?
The answer is generally no.
However, when I asked them if they’d ever worked with or for someone, they felt like that person truly cared about them. That person took time to help them figure out things and helped them see things and invest the time to teach them. They almost always say yes. I feel bad to the people that can’t say yes to that. When I ask them what they would do for that person, if there were ever a time to pull a hail Mary, would that leader even have to ask them and the answer is resoundingly no.
You can motivate, a manager and executive can use their authority to motivate outcomes. They can dictate outcomes. The biggest problem with that has been the steps or the solutions are only as smart as the individual.
You could be a very bright person, let’s say with an IQ of 140.
However, your team of 10 people, the direction of just doing it because they feel like they have to. Your entire team of 10 people is only as smart as the 140 IQ. If I had 10 people and I led them as supposed to being your boss or telling them what to do or managing them, I’ve led them and I’ve worked with each of them to develop solutions to obstacles or solutions to challenges help them actuate a roadmap to a shared goal.
Challenge, critique their solutions for the sake of value creation. I’m cultivating the collective IQ and, in that case, let’s say we all have an IQ of 140, but the 140 times 11, we’re brilliant together. We can innovate together.
Frankly, in a scenario like that, we’re effectively cultivating a team of people through leadership. That’s the real innovation happens. I really feel like there’s nothing that a team like that can’t accomplish.
Authority Isn’t Always Leadership
Rae Williams: What is it that you have to do to become this kind good leader and not just be an authority figure? Where do you start to do that?
J. Scott: You start by committing to putting your team first and your needs second which is really hard. I mean, it’s sort of counter to human nature. To put the needs of your team first. The idea is, if as a leader, you work to ensure or to help your team reach for their potential.
To work together, to develop strong relationships where each of them are leaders to the other as well as contributors to the other. When they succeed, you’ll succeed. I think the first step in becoming an effective leader is really recognizing and committing to the fact that leadership isn’t about you.
If you want to run a team of people, so you can succeed, so you can look good, so you can put the accomplishment on your resume, you’re playing for you first. That will inform your decision, they will all feature your motivation and they’ll literally see for who you are as the individual that’s there to work them so you can succeed.
When you can put yourself, interest aside, to assure the interest of the team or the group which again, it’s not like a one-time thing, right? I think first understanding that and committing to leadership really committing to being a leader meeting.
I’m committing to put my team first because leadership’s not about me.
In every moment, working with that team between stimulus and response. In that moment where you’re like shit, that happened, and your instinct is to think about how that affects you, how that could affect your reputation, how that could affect your bonus.
To catch yourself before you react, before you say anything. Take a deep breath and realize that the 10 people on your team are all feeling the exact same way and they need somebody to pick them up, help them see through it.
Help them to come up with a solution and help them get moving. That’s what leaders do. We’re there to serve the team. When we serve the team, the team will serve us.
Missing the Leadership Mark
Rae Williams: What are some of the things that you’ve seen happen when people are just being authority figures and are not doing leadership properly and leading a team in the way it should be led?
J. Scott: Well, I would say, in that scenario where somebody is driving a team, ensuring that they are productive for their own sake, right? Or for their benefit.
When people make mistakes, it’s generally not safe, right? They’re stressed, people don’t feel safe, there’s not a ton of trust. What inevitably ends up happening is that some people will quit, some people will leave. Those who stay have basically quit in the job.
To them, it’s a job, they’re going to clock in, they’re going to clock out, they’re going to do the bare minimum to keep the job, to not get fired. Most importantly, when something doesn’t go the way that it should or they do something that creates an unexpected outcome, they literally will not tell you.
They will make it their job to protect themselves and to look good until you basically then are operating.
You’re dictating outcomes, your team is only as smart as you and you’re not operating with all the function. Because they’re not going to provide you with any information that would make them look bad. That would get them in trouble. What are you leading? You have no idea where you’re at or where you’re going.
To me, I think that it becomes exponentially harder. I mean, you can make progress, but it’s really slow. Nobody’s pulling for you and in that scenario, innovation is impossible because people are not going to engage their brains.
Thought is volatile.
When people are doing the bare minimum and you’re dictating all the outcomes, you might be really smart, but the innovation doesn’t happen. Like Steve Jobs, brilliant, everybody acknowledges, brilliant guy, but he wasn’t the only brain associated with all those innovations who came out of Apple.
Getting Accountability Right
Rae Williams: How does accountability roll into leadership and to business, and how do we do that right?
J. Scott: Accountability is critical, but I’m not the first person you have ever heard say that. It’s likely that just now when you’re asking that question, the audience knew I was going to say that. I said it and they all cringed anyway because we have this dysfunctional relationship with accountability.
Starting from childhood, where hopefully our parents are setting boundaries all in an attempt to help us survive childhood and grow up to be successful, healthy, functioning adults.
But when you’re a kid and your parent puts you in time out because you keep hitting your sister, which is normal thing that kids do. They beat up on each other. But at the same time, they start this roughhousing and its laughter for approximately three minutes. Somebody’s screaming and somebody’s crying.
If you don’t step in, the cycle will continue to repeat itself.
In my case, I have a five-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son, “Hey, Jacob, stop hitting your sister.” And two minutes later, she’s screaming, “stop it.” And he’s done it again because he’s seven and he has no impulse control, so I put him in a timeout. He feels punished.
I explain, listen, I love you, we’ve talked about this. I need to put you in time out—you know, it doesn’t matter how much love or how much time if I do it, he’s going to feel punished.
As they get older and they turn into teenagers and we give them a curfew and they got to be home by 10:00 and they just don’t understand why we won’t let them stay until 2:00 in the morning because they got friends who can stay out until 2:00 in the morning. Now we’re calling it responsibility. You have to be responsible.
If you can’t be responsible then you know, we’re going to have to – there’s going to be some accountability, right? You’ll get grounded or we’ll take away your allowance, right? None of this feels good, it feels terrible, it all feels like a punishment and you know, I don’t know, maybe it’s not until we’re all much older that we kind of understand that really our parents were just loving us and trying to keep us alive, didn’t want to stay up till 2:00 in the morning because we all know that no good happens after 10:00.
Then you get into adulthood, we get into business. We talk about in business, this accountability thing that none of us likes. It just feels yucky, which is why most managers or executives wait to provide feedback to help people stay accountable to their commitment or point out that they’re constantly late to meetings, until they’re really frustrated.
Because it’s something they don’t want to do and when they’ve then have to bring it up or they have to have the talk they’re doing it out of frustration and they are probably feeling like you put me in this position where I’ve got to have this talk with you, where I am frustrated.
When the truth is that accountability is really just knowing that you’ve stalled and knowing that we as a team have to find a way forward. When a leader is constantly providing rich feedback in the form of measuring outcomes like, “Hey this is where we need to be. This is where we are. How can I help you?”
It is less likely to feel like a criticism when you have a good relationship.
You are more likely to accept that feedback in a productive way and the simple fact is this, nobody like providing critical evaluation to their team members. Nobody is excited when they’ve got to have the talk with a team member and so the leaders that are willing to do it often, to normalize it, to make it feel okay and even the leaders that are just frankly willing to do it period are being generous and kind.
In the sense that, if I knew that you were getting ready to make a mistake like that you are going to do something that is going to cause you pain and I didn’t tell you—and we talked and I knew it and I was thinking it and you went and did the thing and then later you are upset about it and you shared with me and I say to you, “I knew that was going to happen.”
What would you say to me?
Why didn’t you tell me earlier?
In a way, you would feel betrayed and if we were best friends you would be angry with me, right? And so, it is funny I ask people all the time, “If one of your coworkers knew that you were going to make a mistake and they could help you, would you want them to tell you?” The answer is resoundingly yes,and that’s exactly what readers are doing when they are providing feedback.
You are giving people the information that they need and basically to decide. They do not have to take your coaching, they don’t have to take your feedback, but ultimately, the willingness of a leader to go beyond their comfort zone. To do something that they are uncomfortable with for the sake of another person, which is giving critical feedback or giving critical coaching, right? To point out that somebody is constantly late when they have committed to being on time, right?
To do that thing that we call accountability, it is simply recognizing when you are off track and figuring out and giving the people information that they need to get back on track. Because it is uncomfortable, it is frankly generous and kind.
Leading Our Leaders
Rae Williams: How do you groom people for that kind of leadership?
J. Scott: When people come aboard at 120VC, they go through what we call orientation onboarding and then integration. They have six weeks’ worth of learning assignments, and one of the topics that we cover is accountability and then at some point within their first year when it comes around, they go to what our project leadership program, which is 14 weeks.
Many go through that with other team members. They go through that with some of our customers. They go through that with students that I’ve just stumbled upon us and through our website paid to attend.
So, they go through that with the public and we definitely cover things like trust, things like candor. We go through just about everything that is covered in my book, is covered in our curriculum by other thought leaders.
In a way, we work very intentionally to create transparency, to create trust, educate our team members on the environment and the culture that we are fostering here.
When they start getting that feedback from day one, they understand where we are coming from. I mean literally there is a lesson and assignment that they go through with the practice leader on accountability on the first day.
So, they come onboard and we go through orientation, which is four hours, and I sort of facilitate that with all new team members and we go through values and there is a lot of trust and accountability and we discuss them and our core values.
And then there is an exercise that they go through later in the day with their practice leader where they talk about how they would like their manager, their practice leader to approach them when they are failing to live up to their commitments. How can their manager speak to them where they can hear them in a way that feels supportive rather than critical?
So literally on the first day, we know that people are going to make commitments they’re going to fall down because I know it is really popular in corporate America to talk about how people should be professional, but I frankly don’t know what that means.
So that means they should be emotionless zombies, that they should never make mistakes? I want to hear people encouraging people in corporate America to be humans. To be human beings, right? Human beings make mistakes.
Human beings make commitments that they don’t live up to.
The idea is to be able to talk about that and really develop a culture of commitment and a culture of accountability where people when they make mistakes one that is safe, that is acceptable and that if there is a lesson in it, then we can all learn from that. When it is learned, we don’t make that mistake again.
I think that it is important that even on the very first day that we start the discussion around how would they like their manager to speak to them when that happens.
How would they like their manager to address it when that happens in a way that speaks to them? Part of the assignment is to journal it so that manager then has it forever for posterity.
So, the first time that it happens, you know because they might have six, seven, eight, nine team members, and the managers in that moment like, “Oh god so I’ve got to have the talk,” and the manager is feeling a little sick to their stomach because nobody like accountability.
The manager can literally go back to that assignment and lead the words that they have provided them and how that discussion can be heard, how that discussion can be had in a safe way.
Accountability has to be discussed right? If you don’t discuss it, people’s natural reflex is always going to be want to vomit when you bring it up.
Listener Challenge from J. Scott
Rae Williams: If you had to issue a challenge to people reading your book, to people in leadership positions, what would that challenge be?
J. Scott: I think that on the coattails of our discussion around accountability, if you really connect, if you are that person that recognizes that you do wait until you are frustrated to provide the feedback and then you do it out of anger, usually it doesn’t go well. Then in evaluating yourself, you realize that there could be a better way.
If you were to provide a rich feedback early and that recognizing that it is hard and that there is maybe a commitment growing in you to want to do that because you saw that it was healthier, I am going to challenge you to start with you.
I think that this accountability thing is interesting in that the leader’s expected to do it because nobody else wants to, right? A high functioning team has team member to team member accountability.
They don’t just leave it to the manager, the executive or the leader to point out when somebody is under performing or being late or being disruptive to the team’s progress, right?
Team members feel safe to do that. It makes them comfortable to do that because they’re committed to whatever they are doing. They are doing to the success of the team, the team’s performance, and they don’t see it as negative. They see it as generous and kind.
My challenge would be to start evaluating yourself.
To sit down and evaluate your own actions. I think that it could feel hypocritical to start providing rich feedback even uncomfortable when you’ve had not any experience doing it when you’ve just lived in accountability because that’s to be done out of frustration. What you could do is maybe once a week, book half an hour on your calendar, because if you don’t block the half an hour on your calendar specifically to do this, you won’t do it even if you get excited about it while I’m talking.
Book half an hour on the calendar and literally think back over your week. Find a situation where you didn’t get the results that you’ve been looking for, a meeting that maybe was awkward, an attack with a team member or even somebody that you worked for, where the outcome was unexpected and not what you were looking for. Clinically evaluate yourself. Get really connected with how you were feeling, self-awareness being one of the fundamentals of emotional intelligence.
How are you feeling? When we’re frustrated, we’re going to react differently than if we’re feeling calm and confident.
Obviously focus determines our inner state, our inner state drives behavior. If we’re angry or if we’re triggered, we’re going to feel that. We’re going to react that way. Really, take a minute to think about how you were feeling. Write it down. And then evaluate how you behaved and write it down and evaluate the outcome that was not suboptimal. Then think about if you encounter that situation again in the future, how would you want to behave?
What could you do that would help you achieve a better outcome? In this way, you get really used to objectively reflecting on your own performance than thinking through like conceptualizing the outcome that you based on the outcome that you got that you don’t want. What could you do differently the next time?
You basically then set yourself up for success the next time that you encounter a situation that’s similar, because if you never take time to evaluate yourself, if you never take time to think through what you could have done to achieve a better outcome, you’re not prepared to ever improve your outcome.
Start by holding yourself accountable, helping yourself stay accountable by critically evaluating yourself, and when you feel like you’ve gotten pretty good at that, then you’re basically prepared to start doing that with your team members.
Rae Williams: How can people reach you if they want to just learn more or to get more information or anything like that?
J. Scott: LinkedIn is a great way. I’ve got a public LinkedIn profile. I’m happy for people that send me an email. They can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.